The Not-So-Simple Life
It was back in the Paleolithic era of reality television, or 2003, when audiences discovered Nicole Richie, the snarky, curvy, mischievous party girl who stepped outside a bubble of wealth and privilege with her glamorous bestie, and became famous for simply being herself. They followed her through an awkward middle period, where fame and ill-considered (and not entirely legal) personal choices collided, resulting in a near-perfect storm of self-destruction. Today, after a bumpy road trip through a landscape littered with reality stars whose clocks stopped ticking after their 15th minute of fame, Nicole Richie stands poised, finally the master of her own celebrity, a businesswoman with two fast-growing fashion lines. She’s returned to the unscripted airwaves, too, as a mentor on NBC’s Fashion Star, where she gives start-up and fashion advice to up-and-coming designers.

The ride has been a wild one for the adopted daughter of pop superstar Lionel Richie and his now-ex-wife Brenda, who took her in at age three after the personal troubles of some family friends overwhelmed their ability to care for the child (Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson were named her godfathers). Richie, 30, first embarked on Fox’s early entry into reality television with The Simple Life near the beginning of the current, instant-celeb-centric millennium, which sent her and childhood pal/hotel heiress Paris Hilton on an excursion into a decidedly un-posh America.

During her first several years on the public radar, her triumphs and travails were a tabloid editor’s dream that included romances with other Hollywood scenesters and celeb-spawn, feuds with on-again, off-again frenemies, a dramatic slim-down that sparked much speculation, and brushes with the law involving drugs and alcohol that led to an 82-minute stint behind bars.

But after all that came redemption, also in headline-friendly bytes, as Richie settled into a more mature adulthood after her arrest, which coincided with her meeting—and later marrying—Good Charlotte singer and musician Joel Madden. “I did not wake up one day and say, ‘OK, I’m going to change,’” says Richie, as she looks back on her journey from not-so-promising role of celebutante with a rap sheet, to wife, mom, and mogul. “I do constantly remind people that it has been almost 10 years [since The Simple Life debuted].”

She credits the relationship with Madden as a crucial factor in shaking her from self-destructive habits and a once-escalating friction with her parents. “Joel and I are complete polar opposites,” she says. “He’s from southern Maryland. He’s very family-oriented. He grew up with four brothers and sisters. When we met, I was definitely going through a difficult time with my family, and having him have such a strong foundation really opened the doors and brought both of our families together.”

Getting Real
In between occasional acting gigs (in stunt-cast stints on middling sitcoms, a twice-recurring role on Chuck, and on the big screen in the little-seen indie high school comedy Kids in America), and a pair of seemingly, and tellingly, semi-autobiographical novels (the first stars a Hollywood club-hopping, chemically altered rich rock star-adopted protagonist, the second a wealthy young woman who loses everything but rebounds in post-Katrina New Orleans), Richie’s dramatic reinvention played out slowly but steadily over the past half-dozen years. She and Madden became the parents of two children, Harlow, four, and Sparrow, two. She saw potential to build on an uncontroversial element of her celebrity—as a boho-chic style icon (crafted in conjunction with stylist—and eventual ex-BFF—Rachel Zoe). Richie started first with a jewelry and accessories line, House of Harlow 1960, partnering with noted jeweler Pascal Mouawad, whose company, Glamhouse, specializes in springboarding celebrity collections. Then came women’s ready-to-wear line Winter Kate, reflective of Richie’s vintage ’60s and ’70s aesthetic updated with a modern spin.

Where many reality stars’ products line the aisles at Wal-Mart, Richie’s labels are carried by high-end department stores like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Bergdorf Goodman, and a thousand retail outlets in more than 40 countries across the globe. As evidence of her success as a businesswoman, she recently landed a gig as a mentor on NBC’s Fashion Star, an American Idol-style series seeking out the next hot designer.

So despite the odds, Richie transcended the typical reality-star paradigm, and evolved from “famous for being famous” to “still famous because she actually demonstrated a considerable creative talent.” She learned to take control of her notoriety rather than let it control her. The only person not surprised at the outcome was Richie. “You have to remember that I was 20 years old,” she says of her earlier, wilder days. “I don’t know anybody who can look back at who they were at 20 and say, ‘I’m the exact same person.’ It’s all about evolving and growing. Who we are in our 30s is obviously very different than who we are in our 20s…. Also, keep in mind that my life didn’t start in shooting The Simple Life. For the public, obviously, that was the first time they saw me, but this,” she says, during a break from a shoot of her fashion wares, “has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl.”

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